Cambodia is Fast Becoming an Essential Stop for Backpackers

With picture-perfect beaches at Sihanoukville, backpacker-friendly prices in Phnom Penh and timeworn temples at Siem Reap, there's little wonder why. 

3.5 million globetrotters flocked to Cambodia in 2013. That’s a whopping 24% rise on the year before. They come from far and wide, increasingly to volunteer on community projects but always to marvel at its beautiful and ancient sights.

This is all quite new. Cambodia’s beauty was hidden from tourists for decades after the notorious dictator Pol Pot expelled all foreigners in 1975, keeping them away from the refugees and landmines until the 1990s. Now Cambodia is moving onwards and upwards, its doors wide open with welcoming smiles - my own visit was a bizarre combination of genocide tourism, cultural quirks and many, many temples.

Credit: Sasha Isachenko

Phnom Penh's healing scars

Cambodia’s capital city echoes a trauma from when, quite suddenly in April 1975, its entire population was marched into the countryside to work as impoverished peasants. When the survivors returned four years later, Phnom Penh was devastated.

Thirty years on it’s still poverty-stricken and one of the least popular cities in Southeast Asia. But the tourist industry is growing in leaps and bounds.

Credit: Anna Claeys

Riding around the city on tuk-tuks is a boundless joy. Wind and dust in your hair, you’ll zoom past beautiful and distinct Khmer architecture, glittering temples and orange-clad monks with yellow umbrellas. The golden and uniquely Khmer Royal Palace, built in the 1860s, sits on the Tonle Sap and Mekong river junction and truly is architecture for kings.

Credit: Anna Claeys

Don’t expect to be dazzled everywhere though. Limbless and child beggars are the tragically common consequence of Cambodia’s landmines, and abject poverty remains abundant.

Even some of Phnom Penh’s entertainment rose out of the Khmer Rouge years. At a shooting range on the city’s outskirts a few dollars can buy anyone target practice with an AK47 and, for a few more, an RPG.

Remains of the Khmer Rouge

The city’s quirky charms aside, the real remnants of the Khmer Rouge are impossible to miss. Its surviving leaders’ trials for war crimes are still going on, and a trip to Phnom Penh makes the slaughter of a third of the country’s residents within those few short years seem incredibly recent.

The unambiguously named Killing Fields lie just outside the city at Choeung Ek, one of many sites containing the remains of the murdered millions. The memorial stupa needs little in the way of explanation, bearing shelves upon shelves of five thousand human skulls. A walk through the old orchard and I came across a set of human teeth etched into the dusty ground.

Many whose final resting place is here came directly from a torture centre named Tuol Sleng, a former high school in Phnom Penh where just twelve of 17,000 inmates survived. Now a genocide museum, tour guides frequently have their own horror story to tell. Mine recalled several lost family members, and will never know how or where they died. She works there to remember them.

Khmer Glory at Siem Reap

Cambodia’s star attractions – definitely more cheerful – are the ancient temple ruins to the north of Phnom Penh, in the sparse rural area around Siem Reap. 

From the alternate Wonder of the World at Angkor Wat, enormous and with its square moat, to the vines and twisting trees at the ruins of Ta Prohm (think Angelia Jolie in Tomb Raider), you’ll need a few days at least to fully explore the thousand or so ruins in the Siem Reap area.

Credit: Sam Garza

They’re the survivors of the Khmer Empire with its sprawling metropolis at Angkor, once home to around one million people, a figure London did not reach until the nineteenth century. The Khmers ruled for 500 years over what is now Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the fringes of Vietnam and Myanmar between the ninth and thirteenth centuries – and their ancient capital is still unrivalled as containing the largest religious monument in the world.

Watch out for the biting monkeys, though. Those guys won’t take no for an answer if there’s food around, and remember to watch your step for the snakes slithering through the undergrowth. A viable option for avoiding both is taking the hot-air balloon high above Siem Reap, and looking for miles across the ancient and rural landscape.

Credit: Anna Claeys

If you find the town too touristy, stay at a hotel further out for a bigger room at a better price. Tuk-tuks are (always) the best travel option so hire one for the whole day to take you around the temple areas.

Don’t miss…

The floating villages at Tonle Sap lake. Unusual and primitive, though many tourists complain about getting ripped off for boat trips.

Credit: Jialiang Gao

Tasty fried spiders. Actually I skipped these, and have never looked back.

Credit: Mat Connolley

Buddhist temples, wats. Beautiful and golden inside and out.

Credit: Anna Claeys

Bamboo Island, just off Sihanoukville, for beach huts and sandy paradise.

Credit: Wouter Hagens